AT&T's ambitious plan to install 80 antennas on existing utility poles throughout Palo Alto continues to polarize the community, with some calling the proposal a necessary step to improving cell phone reception and others calling the proposed equipment unsightly and disruptive.
On Thursday, the controversial plan took a big step forward when the city's Architectural Review Board approved the first of four phases in the company's plan -- a phase that involves installing 20 antennas.
The board voted 4-0, with Grace Lee absent, to support AT&T's plan but added a number of conditions to its approval. These included requiring the company to test noise and radio-frequency levels of the new equipment after installation, using trees whenever possible to screen the equipment and changing the color of the equipment from dark green to beige.
About 50 people, including dozens of residents from neighborhoods where the new equipment would be installed, attended the meeting to either protest or support AT&T's plan. Some took heart in the company's latest design, which reduced the number of installations in each pole from two to one.
Perrin French, who lives in the 1200 block of Waverley Street, said everyone on his block opposes the new antennas. John Morris, a leading opponent of the AT&T proposal, characterized the company's phased approach as a "divide and conquer strategy"
"The secrecy is unacceptable," Morris said.
Many residents urged the city to create a master plan for communication equipment rather than approve projects one by one. But others bemoaned horrible cell phone reception and advocated a swift approval of AT&T's proposal. AT&T has also argued persistently that the new equipment is necessary to meet the city's high demand for wireless coverage.
The board's 4-0 vote Thursday is a major step forward for the company whose vision for Palo Alto has been attracting intense opposition over the past year. An earlier proposal by AT&T to install an antenna at St. Albert the Great Church in Crescent Park was heavily panned by neighborhood residents and ultimately withdrawn.
Palo Alto's planning staff also anticipates that the board's approval will likely face an appeal, in which case it would have to go to the City Council for a review.
Board members said Thursday that they generally support AT&T's proposed design, though they tacked on a list of conditions to the approval. These related mostly to aesthetics, including ways to screen the wireless equipment from view. The board also had an extensive discussion of AT&T's plan to install battery backups on utility poles. Board members and staff were particularly concerned about the sound the battery cabinets would make. The board ultimately did not ban the battery boxes, but members added a condition requiring AT&T to test the equipment's noise level for compliance with local regulations.
Paul Albritton, an attorney representing AT&T, said the company would be willing to omit the battery boxes. But he also stressed the importance of backup power during an outage.
"It's two hours of battery backup, but it's in an emergency," Albritton said. "Those are the two hours when things tend to happen."
Both sides at Thursday's hearing brought props to stress their point. AT&T representatives displayed placards in the Council Chambers with the words, "Yes! I support AT&T's effort to bring more wireless infrastructure to Palo Alto!" followed by hundreds of names.
The company had mailed out cards to residents, asking them to check a "Yes!" box on the card and send it to the City Council. Many did so. Some of them also wore stickers with the word "Yes!" written in orange.
Board member Judith Wasserman was among those who didn't appreciate AT&T's mailing of cards, saying the move only damaged the public's perception of the project.
"I've never seen so many people incensed about the propaganda they were getting," Wasserman said.
Opponents brought their own props. Morris unfurled a giant poster depicting an earlier AT&T design of the proposed equipment. Dozens of critics also wore stickers with the words "No DAS," referring to AT&T's proposed "distributed antenna system."
Under the AT&T proposal approved Thursday, the equipment would be installed on poles in the following locations:
179 Lincoln Ave.
1851 Bryant St.
1401 Emerson St.
1880 Park Blvd.
134 Park Ave.
109 Coleridge Ave.
1345 Webster St.
2101 Waverley St.
2326 Webster St.
968 Dennis Drive
370 Lowell Ave.
1248 Waverley St.
105 Rinconada Ave.
1720 Webster St.
2704 Louis Road
464 Churchill Ave.
255 N. California Ave.
1085 Arrowhead Way
595 Lincoln Ave.
Oregon Expressway near Ross Road